Admit it - did you ever think you'd see the head coaches of Penn State and Pitt together in the same room, let alone joking around?
Old-time fans of Penn State certainly must feel like they're in the Twilight Zone, who used to count Pitt as their bitter rival but haven't played each other since 2000. And newer fans of the big fish in Division I football in Pennsylvania also could be forgiven if they thought something goofy was going on - as rumors that Pitt is about to join the Big 10 have been swirling for the past month, and any place where Dave Wannstedt and Joe Paterno are seen together was bound to set off alarm bells.
But JoePa and Wannstedt were there to discuss something that very different than the state of the Big 10. They were there to lend their support to something that Pennsylvania high school coaches would like to see implemented: a "spring season", or series of spring practices, to help players their programs play better in the fall and to expose their players with a chance at playing Division I football to work out in front of college scouts. (more)
What kicked this off is the meeting of the Pennsylvania State Football Coaches Association (PSFCA), who endorsed the idea and got both coaches on board:
Paterno and Wannstedt also agreed with the high school coaches’ assertion that allowing Pennsylvania’s programs to practice during the spring would not only benefit the state’s teams but provide more opportunities for players to be exposed to college scouts, particularly those from Division II and Division III programs. Both coaches also pledged their support for the PFSCA’s plan to petition the PIAA board of directors for a window of spring workouts in mid-to-late May.
“Oh, absolutely,” Paterno said in response to a question regarding his support for spring football practice. “My feeling is anything we can do to help the high school coaches (in Pennsylvania), we’ll do.”
Wannstedt, who was a high school coach in Florida several years ago, noted that Florida [high schools] have permitted spring drills for quite some time and said those players are farther ahead than players without spring practice.
“We all know what kind of repetitions it takes to become a good football player,” Wannstedt said. “But it goes to the other things that Coach Paterno mentioned: The discipline, the pride, the camaraderie.”
Wannstedt also pointed out that if a spring practice is held in may when the college coaches are on the road recruiting, they have a much better opportunity to evaluate recruits.
“This has nothing to do with helping Penn State ot Pitt,” Paterno said. “We’ll get our players. It’s about making Pennsylvania high school football improve.”
Paterno and Wannstedt are pushing their support behind this endeavor even though it probably wouldn't help their programs in particular, either.
High school spring football in the state wouldn’t change much for Paterno or Wannstedt. If the Nittany Lions or Panthers don’t already know about a player by the spring of his junior year, they’re probably not going to offer him a scholarship anyway. That isn’t the case for many of Pennsylvania’s smaller college programs.
“We’ll find ways to go out and get some kids,” Paterno said. “But we’ve got an awful lot of outstanding universities in this state — Juniata down the block, Bucknell, Grove City, Robert Morris ... and the kids are gonna go to places like that. They may not have the kind of staff that we have or the kind of staff that Dave has.”
That's very true - Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell all don't have the same level of paid staff as a Penn State or Pitt. But a group of people who are very worried about spring football's effects are the coaches of multiple-sport stars in Pennsylvania high schools, who think that spring football could impact their spring seasons:
The issue, however, is more complex than whether or not high school football players can benefit from more practice. The concern for some is how much that extra football practice would cut into the time kids are spending playing other sports during the spring.
"This is obviously one of those things where football-crazed high schools would love to see because that's all their kids do is play football," said Adams, also an assistant football coach at AAHS. "That's not what we do at Altoona. We have kids that play three sports at Altoona."
A lot of them, Adams noted, excel in track for the Mountain Lions, who have won two indoor state titles, one outdoor state crown and 13 consecutive District 6 championships.
"It would be very detrimental to our program," Adams said of spring football.
The PSFCA's goal is to add a spring football period in late May - after the completion of the district track meets - that would include about 10 practices. Those in favor understand their plan may not be met with open arms by everyone.
"There is a giant concern of affecting spring sports, and nobody wants to do anything to create waves there," Hayes said.
While many schools' track and baseball teams would be finished with their seasons in time for their multi-sport athletes to take part in spring football, the premier teams would not.
Some Pennsylvania football coaches are enthusiastically behind the idea:
No high school football coach in his right mind is going to turn down a chance to have extra time to work with his team. But the coaches hope to use spring football as much for promoting their players as instructing them, especially those who haven’t been on the wish lists of BCS powers since their 16th birthdays.The consensus seems to be that while the high-profile thumbs-up from the two premier FBS head coaches in Pennsylvania was impressive and a good PR coup, it's part of an ongoing battle between the PSFCA and the PIAA that seems likely to still be won - this round, anyway - by the PIAA:
“It’s easy to market the kids that are Division I kids,” Red Land coach Frank Gay said. “But if we can market the kids that are Division II and Division III kids and get them opportunities to play college football, then it’s worth it all.”
Clearfield coach Tim Janocko, who attended the meeting with Paterno and Wannstedt, heavily favors spring football and has a theory on why some people would oppose it.
"I just find any time you want to change things, people react like it's the end of the world," he said.
Janocko's primary concern is the state of football as a whole in Pennsylvania.
"We feel our kids are falling behind," he said, "because these other states are doing things in the spring with their kids, and we're one of the few states that really don't."
"I don't see why it wouldn't work," he said. "In reality, there are probably not that many kids who play those sports beyond the middle of May.
"You have two Division I coaches telling you that there's a difference between the kids that play spring ball and the kids who don't. I mean, come on."
Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render said other athletes participate in their sports long after the end of the high school seasons, including offseason swim meets, AAU basketball, elite soccer and summer baseball.
"The way things are right now, football is the only sport that has any rules. We have a starting date and ending date."
He said Pennsylvania football may be too closely tied to its past.
"Sometimes, I think we apologize in Pennsylvania for the history and tradition we have in football. It's like somebody is trying to hold us back all the time. I don't fully understand that. Nobody comes up with a great reason why we shouldn't do this, other than, 'This is the way it has always been done.' I think everything needs evaluated periodically.
"We keep falling behind the Florida, Texas and Alabama (schools). Our kids just aren't at the same level. It would be nice to close that gap a little bit."
PIAA executive director Brad Cashman has a message for those coaches: Save your breath.What might it mean, though, for the Lehigh's, Lafayette's, Bucknell's, Duquesne's, and Robert Morris', though? (And a bevy of other Division I FCS, Division II and Division III programs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other nearby states?)
Asked if the PIAA is interested in pursuing spring football, Cashman left no doubt about his intentions.
"The shorter answer is no," he said, "and that's meant as no disrespect to coach Paterno and coach Wannstedt. This matter has already been considered by the PIAA football steering committee, and it never got out of the committee as a recommendation to the board of directors."
"It's just a better way for us and everyone else to evaluate kids better," coach Coen told me. "Several of the southern states have it so it's nothing new."
"I feel it would be an advantage for the High School Coaches in that it would enable them to coach their players within the rules for a period prior to the summer," Bucknell head coach Joe Susan told me. "This would provide these players with fundamental instruction and would bring them along in their skill development.
"The primary advantage that schools in states that have spring practice is that the players develop fundamentals at a better rate than schools that do not have spring practice. I feel it would make the spring evaluation period better for Patriot League schools in that we could see the local players in an athletic evaluation more specific to our sport."
Admittedly I'm a college football fan, so I'm likely to think this is a good idea. But I don't follow high school football closely, so I'm not an expert by any means.
To me, though, it's hard to see the goal in opposing this. Is to try to prevent football from growing in popularity in the Keystone state? That's not going to happen, spring football or not.
Is it an issue with conflict with spring sports? Perhaps there's real merit to that. But since they're voluntary workouts, it seems like the kids who might have a conflict can just arrange to work out their conflicts with each individual coach - something they'd probably be doing anyway. Besides, the number of kids in question who are multi-sport stars can't be a very large number.
Would most high school coaches tell a defensive back he had to miss a state track meet to attend spring practice? My guess would be no.
Would it mean that spring football would automatically put Pennsylvania in the pantheon of Florida and Texas in terms of high school football? No way. Texas and Florida will always have one thing that Pennsylvania doesn't have: temperate weather that allows for a spring season to take place essentially anytime.
But basically, more good football players coming out of Pennsylvania schools will help everyone in the state. It helps Pennsylvania close the gap with Texas, Florida and states like that who are already doing these things (and are becoming more and more frequent targets of Patriot League schools).
As long as it's not causing undue injury and stress on young bodies, and it can be done without hurting kids academically to have a couple quiet weeks of practice in the spring, why not?